Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Healing the Female Heart

Nurse Sharon Hipkins of Laurel, Md. suffered a heart attack on February 3, 1997. She still remembers the events vividly. At age 47 with no history of heart problems, Hipkins had a tight chest with pain radiating out to her elbows and jaw.

Thinking it was a bad asthma attack, Hipkins used her Proventil. She'd been short of breath that fall, and had called her local internist. He thought the symptoms indicated asthma, too. Her doctor cautioned her to visit a hospital, though, to be safe. Alone in her house that night, Hipkins drove to Laurel Regional Hospital and called a friend by cell phone as she drove, for precaution. "You can ask 911 to pick me up from the road if I pass out," she told her friend.

At the hospital, an electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures the heart's electricity output) identified Hipkins' heart attack in time for TPA (an anti-clotting agent used for heart attacks and strokes) to work. The doctors gave it to her immediately.

In the hospital, doctors also noticed Hipkins' cholesterol levels. Her unusually low HDL level, the doctors told her, is a risk factor for heart attacks in women all by itself. It was an education for Hipkins, who is a medical professional. "I was overwhelmed," she says. "I just needed to be a patient, not a nurse who understood medicine. I needed help and information like anybody in this situation would."

Hipkins was lucky. Many women with the same symptoms would have been sent home with a prescription for tranquilizers.

The Facts on Women and Heart Disease

Heart disease is the number one killer of women. In fact, some 250,000 women die each year of heart disease. And black women are 69 percent more likely than white women to suffer heart disease and heart attacks, as well as more likely to die of a heart attack before menopause. All women are more likely to die from their first full-blown heart attack than are men.

So why do we think of heart disease as a man's problem? Maybe that's because until a few years ago, doctors didn't realize that women were suffering a heart attack when they came to hospital emergency rooms complaining of nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and general disorientation.